April 21, 2018

Gaudete et exsultate: The Real History of the World

Pope Francis exhorts us, with the help of Edith Stein:
Let us be spurred on by the signs of holiness that the Lord shows us through the humblest members of that people which “shares also in Christ’s prophetic office, spreading abroad a living witness to him, especially by means of a life of faith and charity”. We should consider the fact that, as Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross suggests, real history is made by so many of them. As she writes: “The greatest figures of prophecy and sanctity step forth out of the darkest night. But for the most part, the formative stream of the mystical life remains invisible. Certainly the most decisive turning points in world history are substantially co-determined by souls whom no history book ever mentions. And we will only find out about those souls to whom we owe the decisive turning points in our personal lives on the day when all that is hidden is revealed” (8)
This reminded me of something from Thomas Merton:
I wonder if there are twenty men alive in the world now who see things as they really are. That would mean that there were twenty men who were free, who were not dominated or even influenced by any attachment to any created thing or to their own selves or to any gift of God, even to the highest, the most supernaturally pure of His graces. I don't believe that there are twenty such men alive in the world. But there must be one or two. They are the ones who are holding everything together and keeping the universe from falling apart. (from "Detachment" in New Seeds of Contemplation)
One of the gifts of priesthood for me has been the opportunity to meet, usually in confession, some of these hidden saints. It is they, not the robbers writ large that one sees each day in the news, who are the protagonists of the true history of the world, which is the creation's pilgrimage toward full transfiguration in the Risen Christ.

This is one of the reasons why a priest needs to be reading the saints, because he will have to hear the confessions of Christians who are more advanced than he is in the spiritual journey, and therefore he won't be able to give counsel from his own experience. Rather, he will have to find appropriate counsel based on what he has learned about the spiritual life from his reading, even if he has not yet experienced these things himself.

Of course it doesn't make sense to point this out to a penitent as it would introduce an unhelpful focus on the person of the confessor. In any case the Holy Spirit often protects souls from a knowledge of their own holiness, and so pointing out the advanced state of a penitent's spiritual life would only make for confusion and other distractions.

Indeed, this way in which God hides the knowledge of holiness from someone is an expression of divine mercy, since such knowledge would bring with it other temptations and trials. The disciples on the road to Emmaus were kept from recognizing the Lord until the moment at which it served the Holy Spirit's purpose and the grace God willed for them. And the process is no different for other souls.

Sometimes I think it's also a little like when I took the GRE. When I was a Capuchin novice in good old Mt. Calvary, Wisconsin, I was asked to take the GRE as part of my application to Weston Jesuit School of Theology, of happy memory. So one very cold Saturday morning, I got up early and drove up to Oshkosh for this purpose. Now being a person who is getting older, I had never taken a standardized test on a computer before, and I didn't know that it was presenting questions based on how I had done with the previous ones. So at the end I felt as if I had struggled very much through the whole test and done poorly. But as it turned out, I was struggling at a level that was acceptable. I think the consciousness of our hidden saints is like that. They experience struggle and so don't imagine that they are particularly holy. But the truth is that they are struggling at a high level of holiness, just like I was failing at the GRE questions at a level that was adequate, apparently, for my application.

A mindfulness that the world is populated with these hidden saints, about whose presence Pope Francis reminds us, can support us in our own struggle for charity. The person next to us in chapel, or in our building or neighborhood or on the bus, or in front of us in line for something, might be one of these hidden saints, one of those who is "keeping the universe from falling apart." So when I experience the person as annoying, which happens because I, with my own sins and inattention to the spiritual life, have cultivated for myself a lack of patience and charity, I can try to remember that the affliction I am experiencing is not the truth and, if the person is indeed one of those hidden saints, might be the furthest thing from reality.

Therefore, since I can't know who might be one of those hidden saints who are living and guiding the true history of the world, it only makes sense to receive and hold everyone I encounter with the same reverence I would give to anything that is holy.

April 20, 2018

Gaudete et exsultate: Community

I took some time to read Gaudete et exsultate. Anything I would say about it generally has already been posted here and there, so there's no need for me to repeat it. I do have some personal reflections to share, however, on this exhortation to holiness. This is the first.
In salvation history, the Lord saved one people. We are never completely ourselves unless we belong to a people. That is why no one is saved alone, as an isolated individual. Rather, God draws us to himself, taking into account the complex fabric of interpersonal relationships present in a human community. God wanted to enter into the life and history of a people. (6)
In religious life it's a commonplace to say that the reasons you entered are not the same reasons you have stayed. In the same way, what you anticipated as being the greatest challenges don't turn out to be the things you struggle with the most. Conversely, what seemed like an easy thing when you first professed can become a great struggle. I am sure that those who are married or in any other sort of particular vocation have analogous experiences.

When I made my religious profession, I had not thought much about the line, Therefore, I entrust myself with all my heart to this brotherhood. As time has gone on, however, I realize that this is one of the most challenging aspects of the whole business.

April 1, 2018

The Easter Itinerancy

(An old post updated)

Every year on this holy night I reflect on the grace of itinerancy that the Holy Spirit has given me; only twice in my whole baptism have I been in the same place for the Easter Vigil for more than two years in a row. When I think about the places I've been for the Vigil, it puts me in awe of God and in a state of gratitude for my journey.

March 9, 2018

Retreat Report

This afternoon we have returned home from our annual community retreat. It was held, as has been usual in time my time here, at our house in Frascati in the hills outside Rome.

Ah Rome. She's pretty from a distance, no?

For me the grace of the retreat was to pause and take a look at my life and vocation at this particular moment, especially in light of some changes in the recent past (e.g. loss of a spiritual director) and looking forward to changes that are on the way (e.g. the General Chapter this summer). My prayer was mostly about who I am at this point and the discernment of what God desires for me going forward.

For the days of retreat, I found myself most of the time in one of two places. The first was the Capuchin church adjacent to the friary:

San Francesco d'Assisi, Frascati. Consecrated 1579.

There I prayed, reflected on things, and sometimes just sat with the Lord. It was cold enough in there that even I wanted a sweatshirt, so there wasn't much danger of any other friar interrupting my solitude!

My other spot was in the friary rec room, where I read, journaled, and tended the fireplace in the later afternoons.


What a rich source of metaphor for the spiritual life! Long-time followers of this blog will remember my sufferings during a period of my religious life when I gathered with confreres to pray around a fake fireplace (supplied with real tools; 'Lord, close my lips' must be my prayer about that), despite the fact that the Blessed Sacrament was reserved in a number of nearby places.

During the retreat I finished Into the Silent Land: A Guide to the Christian Practice of Contemplation by Fr. Martin Laird, O.S.A., which had been recommended to me by a confrere, and I read most of Cardinal Sarah's The Power of Silence: Against the Dictatorship of Noise, which is a prayerful, beautiful book. I recommend it.

February 12, 2018

The Penitent Who Hates The Pope

A pastoral issue came up during table talk among the friars recently: what to do for a penitent who comes to confession and says he hates Pope Francis.

For my part I don't think this has ever happened to me. Back when I was assigned to pastoral ministry, which was during the pontificate of Benedict XVI, I don't remember anyone ever confessing hatred for him either. Perhaps there was less overlap between the faithful afflicted with hatred for Pope Benedict XVI and the faithful who go to confession. But that question goes with another topic.

The question stuck with me and I gave it some thought.

December 19, 2017

Preacher to the Popes: Father Cantalamessa



This was filmed in February 2016 here at the Capuchin General Curia and at our friary in Frascati, outside of Rome. I was happy to be able to help with some of the arrangements and other practical matters. The director, Ashley Zahorian, had a genuine and devout passion for making known the ministry of the our confrere in his service as Preacher to the Papal Household.

(In the clip, in addition to Fr. Cantalamessa himself and others, you get to see Br. Mark of the Just a Brother blog, and Br. Clayton, who shows up now and again in my tweets as my 'boss.')

It's a project worthy of support. Check out the full website here.

November 3, 2017

Out of the Well

"Which of you, having a son or an ox that fallen into a well, will not immediately pull him out on a sabbath day?" (Luke 14:5)

That's us, poor children of God and his dumb creatures who have fallen.

And just as the answer to the question is everyone, so Jesus does it too, drawing us up from our fallenness through the well of baptism, and on a sabbath day too, the Great Sabbath, Holy Saturday,  when he descends into the hell we have provided for ourselves with our sins and draws up our humanity, united to his, as the New Creation of which his Resurrection is the dawn.